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  Giovanni Battista Ferrari
1583 - 1655

Giovanni Battista Ferrari was born into a prosperous Sienese family in 1583 and entered the Jesuit Order in Rome in 1602. His subsequent career included a Professorship of Hebrew and Rhetoric at the Jesuit College in Rome, a position as horticultural advisor to the papal family, and the authorship of a number of important books. He also became a close associate of the scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) who was an advisor to the Barberini family. Through this connection, Ferrari joined an important circle of men of science in Rome, and was appointed to manage the new garden at the Barberini Palace which was unique as a showplace for the newest and rarest plants from the distant regions of Asia, Africa, and America. The cultivation of new specimens led Ferrari to the subject of botanical nomenclature, and he became a leading 17th century source for nomenclatural definition. Ferrari’s first book was a Syriac Lexicon, and he also published a series of Orations—treatises on Rhetoric which emphasized good Latin usage. His last publication was a book on Sienese saints.

Ferrari’s greatest works were De Florum Cultura (1633) and Hesperides sive de Malorum Aureorum cultura (1646). The earlier book, translated into Italian in 1638 as Flora overo cultura di fiori, was dedicated to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII, and a patron of the arts and sciences. De Florum Cultura was a horticultural book emphasizing the planting and planning of gardens. In it, Ferrari discussed the cultivation and decorative qualities of flowers, particularly of the new and exotic species which were then being planted in a number of new Roman gardens. He also gave close attention to the names of plants, for the introduction of new species from remote parts of the world had the potential to overwhelm the existing systems of plant nomenclature. Ferrari attempted, through careful descriptions and analysis, to name and classify the new species, and his efforts were unique and valuable—“No one previously had been quite as persistent in this domain, and few had made it their business to provide such solid nomenclatural coverage”. (1).

In addition to its botanical and horticultural parts, De Florum Cultura included a number of excellent botanical plates—most of them by the Dutch print-maker, Cornelis Bloemaert (1603-?84). Also in its contents were Ferrari’s original allegorical stories. These were tales about the gods in the horticultural scene or about fantastic happenings in the gardens such as the transformation of a thieving gardener into a snail. The tales were illustrated by engravings done by Johann Friedrich Greuter from the drawings of a number of young artists. A final notable element of Ferrari’s book is the inclusion of the first printed botanical illustration ever made on the basis of a microscopic investigation. It is an illustration of the seeds and seed- pods of the Chinese Rose (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis L.) successfully cultivated in Rome by Ferrari himself.

Ferrari’s second great work, Hesperides sive de Malorum Aureorum cultura, resulted directly from his close relationship with Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of Rome’s leading scholars and patrons of natural history studies. Along with many other scholars of his time, Cassiano was intensely interested in the citrus family, and he not only corresponded extensively on the subject, he collected specimens from many quarters. In its final form, Hesperides was a collaborative work even though Cassiano’s name is not included in the authorship. He was the source of much of the information for the book, while Ferrari was the editor, composer, and author; Cassiano also managed the financing of the publication.

Hesperides is a book in four parts with the first part elaborating on the archaeological, numismatic, mythological and etymological background to citrus lore. The next three parts are about citrons, lemons, and oranges respectively. Perhaps the most notable aspect of these three sections is Ferrari’s extensive and dedicated effort to establish precise taxonomic data. “If the taxonomic drive in the De Florum Cultura is strong, it is almost overwhelming in the Hesperides.” (2). Ferrari’s method depended upon the close examination of specimens which he obtained from gardens and collections in and out of Rome. He was fortunate in having a large number of correspondents who sent him reports and specimens and, of course, Cassiano was the invaluable primary correspondent and collector. Hesperides includes eighty botanical plates which were the work of seven important artists of the time and the engravings were done by Johann Friedrich Greuter and Cornelis Bloemaert. There are also a number of illustrations of other subjects such as orangeries and ancient statues; these were likewise the work of eminent Roman artists and engravers. Three plates show the arrival of the apples of the Hesperides in Italy, specifically at Rome, Naples, and Lake Garda. Others illustrate stories from mythology, and the entire effect of the book is to show a combination of botanical science, story-telling, and poetic explanation. Perhaps it may be best described as a “citrus encyclopedia”.


Francesco Calabrese, La favolosa storia degli agrumi. 1998.
Giovan Battista Ferrari, Flora overo cultura di fiori. Facsimile edition (2001), edited by Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi with introductory essays by Tomasi, Alberta Campitelli, and Margherita Zalum Cardon.
David Freedberg and Enrico Baldini, The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo. Part One. Citrus Fruit. 1997.
Walter Reuther, Herbert John Webber, and Leon Dexter Batchelor, eds. The Citrus Industry. Volume I. 1967.

     (1) Freedberg, p. 48.
     (2) Ibid., p.62.

Robert F. Erickson

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